Rev David McLachlan’s sermon from ​May 5th 2019

NEGATIVE FAITH

One of the things I have got involved with in my time here at Langside was in college chaplaincy at Langside College. At the time I was invited to take it up I didn’t realise the difference between being a chaplain to colleges and universities.

At University it’s much easier – because students are usually there longer, they put down roots – they build up friendships and socialise more and they join clubs and societies out-with normal class time.
On the other hand, people at college tend to come in to classes and just go home again. There wasn’t so much activities, joining clubs or socialising happening in the college building.

One thing we did for a couple of years was run a Café Church in the college for students and it was an interesting experiment but it ended up being frequented mostly by people who weren’t actually students.

The Student Services Dept decided we should form a Spiritual Care Team – the idea being that there would be representatives of different religious groups, but for the vast majority of the time the team was me on my own. One day a Catholic priest showed up but was never seen again, and no other religious group ever sent a representative (despite many invitations).
The one exception was Islam.
For a very short time I had an Imam to work beside. This guy was also chaplain to other colleges and seemed to be a student himself at yet another college so he didn’t last very long either.

One big memory I’ve retained from those days was words I heard one time I attended a college chaplains conference near Edinburgh. And the only thing I recall was being in a breakout discussion group with other chaplains and in our group it so happened that everyone was from a Christian denomination.
There was one guy (pretty sure not Church of Scotland) probably a minister, who was young with a good personality who seemed very much at home in college settings.

He said “You shouldn’t be a college chaplain if you don’t feel comfortable just going up to students and engaging them in conversation. You’ve just to have the courage to go up to random people and begin conversations.”

And then he said “Sometimes you will have a chance to speak about faith briefly and obviously you would take that time to emphasise the positive things of faith –  no point in dwelling on the negative aspects…”

And immediately I thought “the negative aspects of faith?” and as I opened my mouth to ask him about this someone shouted out “Can we all get back into our big group again now” and the moment was lost.

But for a long time afterwards I remembered his words – the negative aspects of faith.
Is there a negative aspect? Is there one? Is there something we should try and keep quiet about? What is thatexactly…?

At this time of year we are still in celebration mode. It’s Easter!
We talk about the GoodNews – the greatest news of all!
But is that just part of it?
Are there negative things about faith?

What was it that this guy was referring to?

I don’t know. But I imagined (and I have a hunch) it might have been something like this…I’m pretty sure he was thinking of moral objections people have to faith.

It could have been the fact that God seems very changeable – a loving God – yet an angry God.
It could have been the fact that the God who commands us to love one another commanded genocide in the OT.
It could have been the fact that God who loves creation so much and proclaimed it to be good later went back on that and decided to wipe it all out and kill everyone in a flood.
It could have been the fact that God who calls on us to forgive one another, will not actually forgive us unless some innocent person suffers in our place.
It could have been the fact that God who calls on us to love one another has decided to throw anyone who is not a card-carrying Christian into the fires of Hell.

Some of the stuff we have moral objections to come from the pages of the Bible.
But the Bible is a record of what people thought about God thousands of years ago, and although God uses the Bible still to communicate to us – not everything in the Bible comes from God or is worthy of God. 

And of course, some of the things we think come from the Bible aren’t even there in the first place. They are theories and pictures that people came up with in the middle-ages and they are not helpful or accurate descriptions of God for our time – nor were they ever any good.

God is not good one minute and a barbarian the next. God is good all the time.
Every time you read of a barbaric act committed by God in the Bible – it is not true.

Over the years of my life I have read many things and been told many things about God. I grew up in church and I’m still here now.
Some of things I have been told have helped to shape my life in good ways.
Some of the things I have been told have been the most important things I have ever heard and ever learned.
But other things I have been told have been nonsense.

When I wondered about contradictions in the Bible I was told to be quiet.
There are no contradictions in the Bible.
Well that’s not true.
When I was young I was told the entire Bible was the infallible inerrant Word of God.
That isn’t true.
I was told that if even one bit of the Bible wasn’t true the whole thing would fall apart and you couldn’t believe any of it..
Really…..?
When I wondered why God seemed to be loving one moment and wrathful the next moment I was told that God is bigger than ourunderstanding and that the only way to really try to understand what God was like was to combine all the different pictures and images together.
That was nonsense.

I grew up with the belief in the back of my mind that there was a place called Hell and people who didn’t do exactly what God wanted would end up there. It was a place God had created for the purpose of eternal torture.
And I also grew up with the belief that the main purpose of Jesus coming into this world was to help us escape Hell and go to heaven when we die.
That Jesus’ main purpose was the next life and not this one.

We who are Christians are followers of Jesus Christ.
The clue is in the name!

We believe that Jesus shows us better than anyone (or anything) what God is like.
So when we get a picture of God an image of God that does not sound like Christ then we can be sure it is faulty.

When we are told something about God that is not like Jesus it can be discounted.
When the Bible says something about God which is at odds with Jesus then the Bible writers have got it wrong. In fact Jesus himself took time to point out passages in scripture (in his case the OT) that had got God wrong.

And when the church says or does something that doesn’t match up with the spirit of Christ then the church has got it wrong.

 So back to the question – is there a negative aspect about our faith?

I’ve got good news and bad news. And I am going to start with the good.

There is no negative side to our faith that we need to accept.
It really  is all good news!

There is nothing immoral that we have to believe.
There is nothing morally repugnant and offensive that we have to defend.
There are no offensive doctrines that we need to try to justify.

When the so called New-Atheists write their bestselling books denouncing religious faith in general and Christianity in particular we can relax, the faith they are describing (in order to put it down) is a false picture – a caricature of real faith. The things they suggest Christians believe are things that few thinking Christians do believe. 

God is good all the time. And every piece of theology or thinking that shows a different kind of God is mistaken.

So what is my negative side? What is the bad news?

This is the only thing I can think of….

Simply this.
There is a challenge to being a Christian in our world that will cost us.
If we decide to take Jesus seriously we are signing up for an adventure with consequences.

We will discover as followers of Jesus that our lives involve us in caring about things that others may ignore.
It might mean being concerned about issues that other people don’t give a fig about.
It means we are living a life that is not completely thinking about ourselves but actually also about the good of others.

And so our time and energies and concerns aren’t just about number one.
We are called to care. We are called to put ourselves out for other people and a cause that is bigger than just ourselves.

We are called to use our time, our talents and let’s say it – ourmoney, in God’s service.

We are called to follow someone who wanted to see the world turned around.
We are called to embrace community in a world that directs us to look after number one.
We are called to embrace Gods values in a world that promotes selfishness, greed and consumerism.
We are called to work to see Gods kingdom established on this earth.

That might mean we may not always be popular with the media or the government or the guardians of society who want to keep everything the same. Any Christian who really tries to follow a leader like Jesus will face opposition.
After all, that’s what happened to him….

There may be things that we will do because we are Christians.
There may be things we won’t do because we are Christians .

Being Christian is a challenge. It can be difficult. It will ask things of us. It may be inconvenient at times. It may call out courage. It may involve us putting ourselves out.
But that, I believe, is as negative as it gets.

In our reading today we are witnessing maybe the earliest of all commissions from Jesus, when we read Jesus’ encounter with Peter at the end of the gospel.
(John 21:15-17)

What Jesus offers Peter (and what he offers all of us) are two things we all need: belonging and purpose.

The strange three-fold question and answer for Peter echoes his betrayal of Jesus. It’s a sign that Jesus recognises Peter’s weakness and frailties but that he is prepared to still accept him anyway.
His past failures do not define him, just as they don’t need to define us.

Peter is accepted. Jesus is restoring him. He belongs once more.

Jesus makes it clear to Peter that he is accepted by God.
You can’t get a better identity than that!

And the other thing Jesus does is give him a mission, a purpose, a vision to work towards. And we all need that to make the most of our life.

We all need a sense of purpose that what we do matters in the world and will make a difference.
People who live the best kind of lives always have something that drives them, something that motivates them,
something that is bigger than just them.

It turns out that purpose is one of the greatest motivators in the world. And Jesus gives Peter real purpose – the chance to follow in his steps and continue his work.

What Jesus offered Peter thatday and what he offers all of us today are two things we all need: belonging and purpose.

Now lets finish with the very last words of the gospel. (John  21:25)
Now there are many other things that Jesus did. If they were all written down, I suppose that the whole world could not hold the books that would be written.

This is the final sentence of whole gospel and it’s a kind of joke!!!

But it’s still true!
Because Jesus still speaks, and calls and changes lives and challenges us.
The story of Jesus and his followers still goes on.
Because people keep choosing to follow him in every age.

Jesus calls us into a life of faith.
To believe in a God that is good and loving, and not cruel or vindictive or morally questionable.

And he calls us to have the courage to follow in his steps, knowing that we will sometimes get it wrong but wanting us to realise that we are called anyway and the Spirit will be with us to guide and support us.

Jesus offered Peter a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.
And to each of us,
in our time and place he offers the same.

John 21:1-17

May 5 2019

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